by Huikun Zhang
“Happy Endings” by Kevin Canty is a short story about a massage experience changing a middle-aged and loneliness man’s mind. It is a story about a man questioning himself, doubting himself, and trying to find himself. The author reveals the struggle of man’s self-awareness. It is not easy to find yourself, also it is not late to find yourself.
“Who you are?” is a big question, you can not answer it easily. How do you identify yourself? In the story, McHenry identifies himself by titles as father, husband, worker, etc. “So he learned to look like a father when his daughter was around, to look like a husband when Marine needed a husband. He did what people expected him to or maybe a little more. He always tried for more” (32). From this description, we can see that he is a very responsible man. He not only does what he has to do, but also, he tries his best to be a good father, husband, and worker. I think he cares more about others’ opinions than himself, and he must have good reputations in his neighborhood. He is supposed to live the rest of life in this way, because he has lived for the past fifty-nine years, as in the story, it says, “He wasn’t expecting to find himself with nobody watching” (32). The quote indicates that he does not hate being watched, he does not want to be alone, and he does not mind finding himself or pleasing himself. He feels food pleasing others, he is the man getting existence from outside, but not inside of himself.
Life is full of changes. His wife passed away, and his daughter is not around. He is alone now: “Still it was just him and Missy, the little papillon dog that Marnie had gotten just before they found out. It seemed like a dirty trick” (33). He thinks the dog is a “the dirty trick”, maybe because he thinks the dog replaced the position of his wife. “Missy” is similar with “miss”, I think it suggests he misses his wife and his daughter, also he gets lost. We can see the inside of him is painful. He does not need to act like a husband and father, so he does not know how to live in his own way. Family bonds and social relationships are like a prison sometimes, once you lost those bonds, it seems like you have freedom, but if you are not prepared, you can not enjoy this freedom, even feel upset.
Changes in life force us to reconsider our condition. The loneliness and the unfavorable business make him frustrated, so when he heard the massage place, “it stuck in his mind” (34). A massage place is an establishment for people to get relax, have fun, and forget disturbing things for a while. McHenry can not remove this thought from his mind assumes this place arises his curiosity, he wants something different, he wants some changes to make him feel good. When he first went to massage place, he is uncomfortable at the beginning. Although he wants to try, that place is still against his previous experience. “He thought, too many people passing through and nobody staying long. The sadness came back to him” (35). We can learn that McHenry has a complicated feeling. He comes here for fun, but he feels sad. I think this sadness is that he realizes he is so lonely. “people passing through and nobody staying long” is the contrast of “steady”. This place is the contrast of home. He feels sad suggests that he misses his family, what he really wants is a close relationship.
The experience of massage is the first time, he notices the pure himself, not as a husband and a father. In the end of the massage, he says, “It was magic” (36). This quote suggests the massage gives him the extraordinary, strange, and pure joy. It is totally different from what he has experienced, words are weak to describe his feeling, he can just use “magic” to express. He has many questions after the massage: “If Marnie were alive, if Carolyn were around. He wasn’t a cheater. But just in himself, he couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it.” (38). This quote suggests that he feels he just did something wrong, he should not have done that massage, also, he assures himself he is a good guy. But the relax and joy is a real feeling, so he doubts his previous knowledge. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, sex is the basic need of human, so it should be fulfilled. It seems he did nothing wrong. “He couldn’t figure out who was being hurt” (38). He is confused by judgment, if he is wrong, but no body is being hurt. His wife is dead, he couldn’t hurt her. The massage girl, she is doing her job, he did not hurt her. Those questions are the symbol that his understanding towards himself is going to change.
When he realizes himself, he scans his past, and he has a different view of his past: “That sadness, again, that waste of years that should have been joyful”, “The sadness again, at the secrecy and fear that had kept them from bright life” (41). He regrets that he did not know himself, and he did not know sex is joyful. He feels sad because his wife is dead, he did not share this happy with her and he can not share with her anymore. He feels sad because he should have realized earlier. He knows what he had missed in the past 50s years.
When McHenry are watching the bird with Adele, her wife’s good friend, he thinks that is boring, “he could only look at birds for about ten minutes” (42). But when they are watching the birds chasing, and mating, McHenry is excited, as he thinks, “This was worth it. All this beautiful life, this excess, generosity” (42). This reveals that his view of sex is changed, he realizes his desire for sex, and his need should be fulfilled. Adele warns McHenry not to tell jokes about how the birds mate for life. McHenry says, “I’m not really a joke-type person” (42). I think McHenry wants to develop a close relationship with Adele, he wants this is a date. But Adele is a traditional woman, she stops his thinking. He is depressed by Adele, that causes him go to massage parlor the next day, to fulfill his need.
The third time he goes to the massage, it is totally different from the previous two times. This time he feels happy and confident. The front girl in the massage place changes to a friendlier, beautiful and nice girl. He feels like, “the world was full of gifts” (42). The word “gift” suggests that he has a very happy and bright mood. Receiving gifts also suggests he is prepared to be pleased. The past fifty-nine years he has tried to please others, but this time he is opposite: “he wasn’t trying to please anybody but himself. So what did he want himself?” (43). He already has the answer for this question, that is the reason why he comes to massage. In addition, he questions the rule: “It was just a rule. But who made the rule?” Rules are made up of laws and moral principles. The moral is what forms our behavior besides law. This causes us to question if the behavior is not illegal, when our needs conflict with moral, how should we constrain ourselves. In the end, he is prepared to challenge the rules: “Somebody might see him. It didn’t matter” (43). From this quote we can see that he will no longer be the man sacrifice himself to please others, he believes he does nothing wrong, he will not care much about others’ opinion, he will ignore the moral blackmail, and just be himself.
Arthur Schopenhauer says, “A man can be himself only so long as he is alone, and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom, for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.” I agree with this quote. In the end of the story, McHenry’s life is going to change, it means he will enjoy the loneliness and freedom. That is the core of finding oneself. I feel empathy about the protagonist, he dedicates more than half of his life to his family and customers, his personal needs are victimized. I am also happy, finally, he learns how to enjoy being himself. The story successfully tells us that at every step of life people have to face problems, people may feel confused and get lost, that is the way to find the answer to who you are. Only then, you can find another you. It is never too late to find the whole self.
Kevin Canty. “Happy Endings” The Best American Short Stories 2015 edited by T. C. Boyle, Mariner Books, 2015, pp. 261-273